Friday, March 25, 2022

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary






Coltrane with Miles







 

Miles, Cannonball Adderley, and Coltrane








Coltrane House in Philadelphia



Dix Hills home, Long Island

John Coltrane with Alice




Coltrane with McCoy Tyner















CHASING TRANE:  THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY         B+                               USA  (99 mi)  2016  d: John Scheinfeld                              

An essential portrait in the life of a jazz giant and a companion piece to Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2020), as both Miles and Coltrane’s lives were forever altered by experiencing the genius of Charlie Parker in concert at a young age, as he was capable of doing things on his alto saxophone that no one else had ever done, literally blowing the minds of these developing young musicians.  Miles and Coltrane may be the two most iconic figures in American jazz, and they collaborated at the height of their respective careers, with Coltrane initially working with Miles in 1955, believing at the time he had reached a zenith in his career, but he followed too closely in the footsteps of Parker, prey to the seductive pimps and drug pushers that hung around jazz clubs in those days, developing a heroin habit, even at the expense of his career, where he and saxophonist Jimmy Heath were caught getting high between sets, both immediately fired by Davis, who didn’t allow drugs to interfere with the business of making music.  Coming early on in the film, it provides something of a jolt, as immediately he’s canned and out on his ass before the film really had a chance to get started.  Down in the doldrums, he goes cold turkey, something requiring great fortitude, going through withdrawals on his own, with his stepdaughter Antonia Andrews recalling he was vomiting all night and sick with fever, but each successive day he was a little bit better.  Flashing back to his boyhood in North Carolina, both of his grandparents were preachers, so he grew up immersed in the church, where spiritual salvation was at the fiber of his being, fixating on music as a lifeline in the Jim Crow South, as his mother sang and played piano, while his father played clarinet and violin.  According to Dr. Cornel West, who taught classes on Coltrane at Princeton and who himself is the grandson of a Baptist minister, explaining how blacks came out of the brutal conditions of slavery, “We gonna share and spread some soothing sweetness against the backdrop of a dark catastrophe.  That’s black music,” claiming further, “Black music was the response to being traumatized.”  Experiencing some dark times, at age 12 he lost his father, uncle, and two grandparents in the space of just two years.  Out of work and needing a source of income, his mother moved to Philadelphia and made enough money to afford music lessons for her son, buying him his first saxophone, switching from the clarinet to the saxophone.  Coltrane was in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor after the war, recording with other enlisted men in an all-white swing band playing jazz standards and be-bop tunes, returning to Philadelphia afterwards to study jazz theory on the G.I. Bill.  According to Wynton Marsalis, listening to those early Navy recordings offer no indication whatsoever of the astounding talent he would become.  Made with the support of the John Coltrane Estate, utilizing astonishing, never-before-seen Coltrane family home movies, footage of John Coltrane in the studio with Monk, Miles Davis and others, along with hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and rare television appearances from around the world, incisive commentary is provided from musicians that worked with him, like childhood friend Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, and the always real Sonny Rollins, but also those who have been inspired by his indomitable artistry, including Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Doors drummer John Densmore, and Common, along with a surprisingly eloquent President Bill Clinton, who famously plays the saxophone, with more commentary from Coltrane’s own children, two of his biographers, Ben Ratliff and Lewis Porter, and jazz scholar Ashley Kahn.  What separates Coltrane from everyone else is that after he gets clean from drugs and alcohol, he then goes on a creative, artistic and spiritual quest the likes of which we have perhaps never seen over a 10-year period by any artist in any medium, becoming one of the seminal figures of jazz.  It might recall the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson whose life and death remain shrouded in mystery, growing up in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, whose musical skills, according to bluesman Son House, were less than stellar.  But after going down to the proverbial crossroads and traveling across the Delta for two years (making a mythological deal with the devil), he returned a bona fide genius of his craft, summoning skills seemingly from out of nowhere, Robert Johnson: The Life And Legacy Of The Blues Giant, doing an infamous recording session over the course of five days, producing just 29 songs, but nearly all of them have become classic standards in the blues canon, forever known as a master of the blues.  Entirely scored with the music of John Coltrane, as access was granted from the entire catalogue, music becomes the major focus of the film, serving as an unspoken narration heard throughout, as he never speaks onscreen, instead Denzel Washington reads from his own interviews and liner notes published between 1957 and 1967.  One major drawback is the persistent use of paintings from the colorfully animated artwork of Rudy Gutierrez in Gary Golio’s children’s book Spirit Seeker – John Coltrane’s Musical Journey.  Rather than enhance the emotional barometer of the artist, this feels somehow indulgent, not so much about Coltrane as another man’s artistic vision.     

In the late 40’s and early 50’s Coltrane worked with Dizzy Gillespie, but it wasn’t until he worked with Miles Davis that his career took off, known as the “First Great Quintet,” which disbanded after Coltrane’s heroin addiction, with Davis aggravated by his unreliability, but once he experienced what he described as “a spiritual awakening,” getting completely off drugs and alcohol, where he’s more clear-headed and sharper mentally, his music changed.  Spending time under the tutelage of Thelonious Monk, with his unique sense of time and composition, refining his skills, learning about harmonic progression, he worked alongside Monk at the Five Spot Café in a 6-month residency in the latter half of 1957 before rejoining Miles Davis in 1958, recreating a small band that simply changed the course of jazz, performing in a quintet/sextet that primarily spotlighted the introverted Coltrane, who was solitary yet driven, serving as a catalyst, providing a greater depth of expression that Davis was seeking.  Miles saw in Coltrane an intelligent, deeply probing and creatively inventive artist mirroring the professionalism in how he viewed himself, often lacking in fellow musicians.  What sustained and influenced Miles in his relationship with Coltrane was not only his sound and the innovation of his improvisations, but the quality of their musical dialogue together, exploring various relationships of intervals in chord construction and melodic variation, reacting in conversations to one another onstage, where Miles was lyrical and succinct, while Coltrane was more rhapsodic.  Offstage they had diametrically opposite personalities, as Coltrane was quiet, pensive, and self-critical to a fault, practicing obsessively, while Davis was arrogant, cocksure, and demanding, surrounded by the company of friends, often venturing into the public eye.  But once they took the stage they reversed roles, as Coltrane was more freely uninhibited in his constant exploration, while Davis became the more sensitive introvert, often muted and hushed, exuding vulnerability.  Miles quickly realized that Coltrane was not just a great sideman, but the perfect counterpoint to his own subdued trumpet.  According to Miles, “After we started playing together for a while, I knew that this guy was a bad motherfucker who was just the voice I needed on tenor to set off my voice.”  Their contrasting approach was even more pronounced during impromptu performances, as Coltrane was obsessing over harmonic variation and would take even more extended time for his improvisations, as his solos grew longer and longer, rare for Davis to allow, but he couldn’t silence this magical voice.  When they stepped into a recording studio, they first recorded Milestones - Miles Davis - (Full Album) (48:00), legendary in its own right, and then M I L E S D A V I S - Kind Of Blue - Full Album (1:18:05), the most successful jazz album in history.  In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that honored it as a national treasure, sumptuous and vital music that’s alternately exhilarating and emotive, rhythmically dynamic and smoothly flowing, complex and easy on the ear.  It’s music that defies classification.  What had been great jazz from the earlier 1955-57 Davis quintet, now broke through to a category of timelessness, finally fulfilling the promise of their collaborative magic.  But Coltrane’s self-assurance only grew in stature, literally outgrowing the group, feeling straightjacketed by the small combo format, needing more time to explore on his own, heading his own group and releasing his own album John Coltrane - Giant Steps (2020 Remaster) [Full Album] (37:32) just a few weeks afterwards, writing all of the compositions himself, including the hauntingly beautiful composition named after his wife, Naima - YouTube (4:25), allegedly Coltrane’s favorite.  It was a declaration of creative independence, acknowledging Coltrane’s arrival as a fully matured, triple threat, a soloist, bandleader and composer.  His musical vision was leading him in a direction away from Miles, who sensed Coltrane drifting away.  While there’s nary a contrary word spoken against him in the entire film, which, in itself, is remarkable, Coltrane was a man of few words, who let his music speak for him.  Jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term “sheets of sound” to describe his style, as he strung together arpeggios so dense that his saxophone seemed to play multiple notes at once.

A creative restlessness continually propelled John Coltrane, becoming fanatical about practicing and developing his craft, practicing “25 hours a day” according to Jimmy Heath, who recalled an incident in a San Francisco hotel after a complaint was issued, so Coltrane took the horn out of his mouth and silently practiced fingering for a full hour.  Before Coltrane, jazz was urban music, expressing a mournful, existential sound of the city, but Coltrane took that sound and honed it down to its transcendent core, becoming an affirming and ecstatic sound of faith.  First he moved to the soprano sax to produce variations on a mainstream show tune from The Sound of Music that became an extremely popular crossover hit, My Favorite Things - John Coltrane [FULL VERSION] HQ (13:46), featuring Jimmy Garrison on bass, the free-flowing style of Elvin Jones on drums, and the remarkably inventive McCoy Tyner on piano, whose foundational layers of chordal support were complimentary, yet revolutionary in their own right.  Coltrane divorced his first wife, where heated acrimony in the household was simply never previously seen, as both were inwardly reserved, but he met pianist Alice McLeod at the club Birdland, got married and raised a family with three children.  By all indications both were gentle spirits, quiet and inwardly spiritual, yet home movie videos reveal these were the happiest years of his life, relaxed and content with his new role as a father, seen smoking his pipe in the back yard, playing with a dog and the couple’s children, while continuing to explore the outer and inner realms of his spiritual dimensions, disappearing into an attic above the garage in their home on Dix Hills, Long Island, eating only sporadically while remaining sequestered, working on a new musical composition, but when he was finally finished, sheet music in hand, according to his wife, “it felt like Moses coming down from the mountain.”  Shaped by his inner faith, it would be his opus jazz record, a four-part suite called A Love Supreme, John Coltrane - A Love Supreme [Full Album] (1965) YouTube (32:48), which was released in 1965, his pinnacle studio outing and one of the most acclaimed jazz records ever, surpassed only by Kind of Blue, Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time, widely recognized as a work of deep spirituality with an underlying religious subtext, a journey into the realms of religious exaltation, a hymn-like anthem of love offering peace and supreme praise to God.  Carlos Santana insists that he plays the music whenever entering hotel rooms, cleansing the surroundings of any lingering evil spirits, keeping the bad vibes away.  Among the more compelling aspects of the film is its drive to an emotionally poignant finale, where one of the film’s most powerful sequences comes with the stark black-and-white footage of protesters being attacked with water hoses and police dogs in the wake of the tragic Birmingham bombing as Coltrane’s haunting Alabama plays, John Coltrane - Alabama YouTube (5:09).  He wrote the song in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963) - National Park ..., a moving lament written in memory of four little girls who were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan bombing, where the mournful melody was inspired by the spoken cadence of Rev. Martin Luther King at the eulogy, as Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage.  When Dr. Cornel West speaks of the work, “Martin Luther King Jr. and John Coltrane, hand in hand, represent the best of the human spirit.”  Coltrane’s group grew more avant garde, free from all constraints and barriers, where the music was pure improvisation, throwing themselves into abstract world music and the free jazz movement where solos could last for more than an hour, with many in the audience walking out, as Coltrane was going further out there in the cosmos than most listeners wanted to go.  According to John Densmore, “He had the right to go out as far as he wanted,” while saxophonist Wayne Shorter claimed Coltrane was preoccupied with the “seeking of universal truth.”  Coltrane’s last tour was across Japan, where he was embraced as a national hero.  In Nagasaki he asked to be taken to the Nagasaki Peace Park Memorial constructed on the site where the atomic bomb was dropped in WWII, a sacred place to the Japanese people, where he stood for some time meditating on the ghastly experience.  The centerpiece of the music played that night was entitled Peace On Earth, Peace On Earth (Live At Shinjuku Kosei Nenkin Hall, Tokyo ... YouTube (25:01), a transcendent work demonstrating not just a deep compassion for the country and its people, but the suffering they endured after the atomic bombing.  Introducing Coltrane that night was Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka, who has authored five books on Coltrane, and may be the #1 collector of Coltrane memorabilia in the world, building a shrine called The Coltrane House in Osaka, コルトレーン・ハウス - livedoor, filled with every record and all the memorabilia he could attain.  His obsession with Coltrane started in high school when he heard him on the radio, feeling it was an utter revelation, a feeling that never left him.  During the end of the tour Coltrane complained of side pain and died suddenly at the young age of 40 from liver cancer, happening very quickly, taking the world by surprise.  Coltrane left behind a catalogue of musical recordings that include all the various phases he went through in his creative development, with President Clinton indicating “He kind of did everything Picasso did, in about 50 years less time,” while his wife Alice Coltrane observed, “He always explored higher vistas knowing that there is always something higher, something greater.”

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